Engage with Taliban

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Engage with Taliban

Wednesday, 22 May 2019 | Ashok K Mehta

Engage with Taliban

While the US has made several U-turns in brokering peace in Afghanistan, India’s biggest policy failure has been the inability to make its only military base in Tajikistan operational

The Afghanistan peace process has undergone nuanced changes and several U-turns under the Trump dispensation. These are worth reflecting upon.

  • It is no longer Afghan-owned, led and driven, but steered by an American Afghan Pashtun, Zalmay Khalilzad, who was appointed as Special Envoy in September 2018. Before that, it was Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary, Alice Wells, who ran the show and held at least three structured meetings with the Taliban at Doha and Islamabad, starting February 2018. She had ruled that the US could hold direct talks with the Taliban only after it had first engaged with the Kabul Government. That priority was overturned by the Khalilzad-led peace process, which has completed six rounds, the fifth being the longest, lasting for all of 15 days. The central issues of the framework accord: a) time-frame for withdrawal of US forces; b) no use of Afghan soil for terrorist attacks on the US and its allies; c) dialogue with elected Government in Kabul; and d) ceasefire. The Taliban wants foreign forces to withdraw in six months and not in one-and-a-half years as the US wants; dialogue with the Kabul Government; and ceasefire only after the withdrawal of foreign forces. According to the Taliban, only two issues — the first two — constitute the framework accord.
  • In his latest State of the Union Address, US President Donald Trump said, “great nations do not fight endless wars.” Last December, he did a U-turn on Afghanistan. Having been reluctantly persuaded by his Generals to stay the course, in a policy speech in August 2017, he lashed out at Pakistan, saying all it has given the US are lies and deceit after receiving $31 billion and praised India for its constructive role in Afghanistan. The then Defence Secretary, James Mattis, issued a “last chance” ultimatum to Pakistan to act against the Taliban sanctuaries which did not work despite intensified drone strikes in Pakistan. Soon, Trump did multiple U-turns: Embraced Pakistan, criticised India for doing five minutes of work like building libraries in Afghanistan and replacing Wells with Khalilzad an as interlocutor to work out an exit deal with the Taliban.
  • Pakistan is now a key facilitator and de facto guarantor for the Taliban’s attendance at the peace talks. In 2016, former US President Barack Obama ordered a drone strike against Taliban leader Emir Mullah Akhtar Mansour for playing truant on peace talks. Till 18 months ago, Islamabad used to say it has no control, only some influence on the Taliban, despite all its leaders residing in Karachi and Quetta. It says it has applied unprecedented pressure on the Taliban to open talks with Kabul. Now, Kabul has asked Washington to reveal the nature of the relationship between Pakistan and the Taliban. Mohammad Umer Daudzai, Afghanistan President Ashraf Ghani’s special envoy and head of the High Peace Council, was in New Delhi last week for consultations. He said: “The Taliban team, which is led by Mullah Baradari, is facilitated by Pakistan.” Rawalpindi will be the main benefactor from any peace deal and after the US’ withdrawal, the vacuum will be filled up by “Iron Brothers” China and Pakistan. The absence of threat from Afghanistan would secure the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), currently under terrorist attacks from the Pakistani Taliban in Afghanistan and the Balochistan Liberation Army. Daudzai told his Indian interlocutors that he did not think the Khalilzad peace process could be completed before the presidential elections in September 2019. He should not be surprised if the US postpones elections a third time and appoints an interim Government as suggested by Pakistan with the Taliban on board.
  • Surprisingly, nowhere in the discourse is there any mention of US retention of its strategic assets in Afghanistan for which President Obama and former President Karzai signed the bilateral security agreement (BSA) in 2014, which provides US troops access to military bases like Bagram and Kandahar until 2024 and beyond. The agreement also states that the key American ally will not abandon Afghanistan militarily and financially for years after 2014, the then deadline for most foreign forces to withdraw. The treaty agreement was initialled by NSA Rangin Dadfar Spanta and US Ambassador Ryan Crocker. Why is the BSA under wraps? And why has the Taliban not raised the issue of foreign bases unless that is part of an unlikely secret agreement between the two?
  • If the mercurial Trump were to suddenly order troops’ pullout, it could prove catastrophic. James Dobbins, a former US Envoy to Afghanistan, fears it could lead to a civil war — back to 1996. Gen Kenneth McKenzie of CentCom has said Afghan national security forces will dissolve without US support. In 2014, a report published by Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR) had made the assessment that ANSF would be capable of resisting the Taliban independently after December 2014 when International Security Assistance Force combat role ended but would require US air support and assistance in casualty evacuation. When Konduz became the first provincial capital to fall to the Taliban in 2014, all hell broke loose in Pentagon, sparking fear of a strategic collapse.

China, Russia and the US this month issued a joint statement saying that “an inclusive Afghan-led peace process will ensure an orderly and responsible withdrawal.” That is not the direction the Khalizad peace process is headed towards.

India has refused to engage with the Taliban because it will not negotiate with Kabul. New Delhi may be a key strategic US partner but in Afghanistan, Pakistan holds the cards. India’s hesitation to start a back channel with the Taliban is unwise at a time when the organisation is known to be praising its development works and economic assistance in Afghanistan. Gen Bipin Rawat has said he favours engagement with the Taliban. India has not succeeded in creating strategic pressure points like activating its only foreign airbase in Ayni in Tajikistan even as Chinese troops are patrolling Wakhan corridor on Tajikistan’s south-east border, 30 km from Pakistan-occupied Kashmir (PoK) to prevent Uighurs from returning to Xinjiang.

India secured operational clearance from Russia to use  Ayni in 2002. It has not deployed combat aircraft but utilises it for airlifting relief and construction material to Ayni and on to Farkhor from where it is trucked to Afghanistan. It has invested $100 million for renovating Ayni and extending the runway to 3,200 m and built three hangars for MiG 29 bombers. Around 100 Indian Air Force personnel are deployed there for maintenance of the airfield. Still, India cannot use Ayni as an operational air base because of the Russia-China-Pakistan axis. It is one of New Delhi’s foreign policy failures, which would otherwise have acted as a strategic fulcrum between Afghanistan and PoK. Modi 2.0 should work on Ayni.

(The writer is a retired Major General of the Indian Army and founder member of the Defence Planning Staff, currently the revamped Integrated Defence Staff)

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